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A Hidden Lever and Emotional Control (Part 2)

The first experience helped me to realise that there is some potential within the mind and body to control internal, emotio-mental states in a way that I was not previously aware of. Things that previously seemed automatic and accidental, such as internal monologues or habits of paying attention, were now subject to wilful exercise.

The Second Experience: Tackling Fear

My appreciation of these facts heightened recently following a little episode with a bad relationship. Ultimately, the relationship itself was neither here nor there but the point is this: during a hiccup, there was a week or so when we weren’t talking, and knew that we shouldn’t. Yet, that didn’t stop me being in an uneasy state of uncertainty. There were no decisions to make, the decision was already made. It was just a waiting game until the situation would reveal itself. In the meantime, there was nought to do be wait, and feel fear.

The interesting thing about that was that, in such a state, the fear itself became the focus of my attention. My heightened awareness borne of the kinds of discoveries discussed in the previous post made me increasingly conscious of my internal states in their various forms.

One day I lay there and felt the fear – not simply as an abstract misapprehension, or a negative pattern of thoughts, but clearly as a physical, bodily sensation. I don’t want to make this overblown… it was hardly the fear of staring a starving lion in the face, but I distinctly felt it as a kind of “cold-burn” and “tightness” in an area that “wrapped around” the back of my skull, down into my chest and upper stomach.

Now, prior to this time I had always tried to deal with fear in a variety of different ways: primarily, obviously: to try and fix the situation. Perhaps I would seek friendly consolation or assurance. And if there were fearful thoughts (as is so often the case) I would simply try to think differently. This time, however, most of these options were moot. The thinking had already been done, and I didn’t have ready access to consolation.

So, instead, as I lay there feeling the fear, I considered the kind of experience that I had with exercising my mental habits and tested to see whether the same would now apply… when I was caught on my mental treadmill, I found that I could “reach into” my mind/brain and demand that it “stop”. Now… it was as if I reached into my mind – and even into my body; that same area where I was feeling the fear, and demanded it to “stop”.

And what did I find?

Once again, it worked.

In fact, it was a very specific kind of sensation. Before, I described the fear as a kind of “cold-burn” and “tightness” through the head and chest. Well, when I “exercised” my peace and demanded it to stop, it was as if water was being poured on the “cold-burn” and the “tightness” started to loosen.

This simple experience strikes me as significant because, again, it struck me as almost completely novel. In fact, in a sense, it struck me as doing the impossible. Despite the fact that I had practised daily meditation for many years (prior to my conversion to Catholicism), I had never understood what people meant when they talked about “trying to relax”. That always struck me as an absurd contradiction. How can one try to relax? Surely, the very effort creates the kind of tension that we are trying to release, and the fear of being afraid causes a vicious cycle? That is what I had always presumed, but now I suppose that there was at least one key difference: I actually believed it was possible. And being possible, it was no longer necessary to fear being afraid.

What I have come to understand is that “trying” to relax or, more appropriately, choosing peace can be regarded as a kind of negative activity. Instead of grabbing onto something, it is about letting go. It is almost exactly like this: you’re in a pub surrounded by people when suddenly, a fight breaks out… you’re in the midst of it watching fists fly and chairs hurtle but once the dust settles you find yourself sitting, unscathed. Yet, a moment later your friend points out that you’re still poised on the edge of your seat, your own fist clenched like a cannonball… noticing your clenched fist you then consciously, willingly, “let it go” and choose to release the tension.

The experience I had with the fear was the same kind of thing. And as I mentioned, it was combined with the physical sensations of “cooling”, “soothing” and “loosening” which were the opposite of the fear itself. The fear was a fire, and by this exercise of will, I found that I could pour water on it.

Now… there are a number of interesting things to point out.

First, pouring water on the fire did not put it out completely. Choosing peace reduced the fear, but some perturbations still persisted. At this stage, I could not destroy it but I could subdue it. This wasn’t much of a surprise. I had learned with the internal monologues that the first exercise of such self-control doesn’t entail total mastery… again, it is a skill to be practised. Also, I was practising it at a time when the cause of the fear itself was still present: I will still in the midst of uncertainty about this dating situation. What’s more, I discovered that my strength to exercise this peace could eventually fatigue. At times of the day when I was particularly awake and energetic, I could “focus down” my fear much like a fireman with a high-pressured hose. Later in the day, when I started to feel tired it was as if the hose would lose pressure. This was all while the facts of the uncertain situation itself remained the same. Also, like with the internal monologues, even if I could subdue the fear, it would have a tendency to creep back in or “pop up” throughout the day. This meant that the whole matter became a question of exercising vigilance, as well as peace (yet, vigilance can also be strengthened through exercise).

Another thing that I noticed was the connection between the fear and my thoughts. Fearful thoughts and fearful experience appear to have a chicken-and-egg relationship. For example, fearful patterns of thinking would “pop up” throughout the day and feel like the fuel for my fear. Likewise, the state of fear itself seemed to be fertile ground for these patterns of thought to grow, as if the very sensation of fear was looking for ideas to feed upon. However, I found that the inverse solution could be applied. On the one hand, if I thought-through the situation, this could take some of the edge off of the fear, helping me to see the situation more objectively. Then again, this was a tried-and-tested technique that didn’t take me the whole way. I came to find that directly practising peace was more effective. When I directly told the fear to “stop” and subdued it, I noticed that, on the one hand, I was simply less fearful and, on the other, this removal of fear cleared the way for more objective, “positive” thinking. Hence, my conclusion is this: whilst in the midst of fear we can try to think more positively/think-through the situation but this is harder within the fear as it’s like swimming against the current. Instead, if the fear is subdued first, we can think more clearly and the benefits of this thinking can be grasped more readily (which, in turn, makes it easier to maintain peace).

Anyway, all of this marked what I now regard as the start of my appreciation of emotional control – something that I neither understood nor really thought possible in the past. The dating situation came and went. In the midst of it, the fires flared and died down, but whenever they did begin to burn, I began the habit of pouring water on them, and this helped me to see the situation clearly for what it was and, ultimately, make the right decision.

Now, the entire experience has matured. I found that this same exercise could be applied throughout the rest of my life. Every bit of fear; anxiety; apprehension; uneasiness or uncertainty shares the same character of the fear that I felt during that week, right down to the physiological sensation (to a greater or lesser extent). Whatever the root cause might be – whatever the intellectual or situational reasons, the experience and the solution are the same. Fears, big and small, come in many forms. And much of the time they catch us by surprise. Just like a dream or an internal monologue, we often find ourselves in fear, without being conscious of how we got there. Yet, the simultaneous exercise of peace and vigilance have meant that, like the internal monologues, my own experience of fear has begun to reduce. Much like creating a habit of mental quiet, I have started to form a counter-habit against fear by regularly pouring water on it, and exercising peace.

I don’t yet know how far this practice can go. I also don’t know what tests it can fully withstand, but the fact that my own experience and perceived control over fear and peace is better now than it was some months ago is, at least personally, undeniable. Once again, I write this on the off-chance that some of these findings might be lucid, familiar or perhaps even useful to some of you who are reading. Given the internal nature of all of these findings, the best I can do is describe them honestly and invite you to practice. Although, the particulars of the dynamic may well be different for each person.

One final thing I will say with some confidence:

Peace and hope are both regarded as virtues. And it is by their very nature that all virtues must have some connection to the will. I suppose that we can often regard things like peace as accidental; happenstantial… the result, as if by fortune, of the events that happen around us and to us. Although it is without doubt that our emotions are greatly informed by the events of life, the experience that I’ve had and the fact that peace is a virtue leaves me convinced that, despite that, such things are not merely accidents… they are not dictated by the things beyond us, and around us. They are – or at least can be – under our dominion and a matter of our own responsibility. More than ever before I have began to appreciate the fact that was can choose our emotions… we can choose to be free… we can choose to be at peace.

The only question remaining is whether these facts are connected to something bigger: to humanity and God or the relation between the two… but more on that is the next post.

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